Big in Japan: The Best Things To Do in Tokyo
Tokyo’s neon lights, Zen gardens and ramen are calling your name. | By Paul Oswell | March 24, 2022
From the sci-fi neon of its downtown to the serenity of its temples, there are so many things to do in Tokyo. Proud Japanese traditions coexist with some of the most futuristic architecture and culture on the planet. It’s a city where nature is celebrated as much as the latest electronic gadgets. If it’s your first time visiting, Tokyo is like no city you’ve ever experienced. And if you’re a repeat visitor, you know you’re in for a treat and making lasting memories.
Here are our tips to help you have the best time in Tokyo:
Learn Tokyo’s history: From the shrines and temples to the Emperor’s Imperial Palace and the story of the samurai, Tokyo’s story is one for the ages
Shop, shop, shop: The city’s colorful, vibrant retail districts have everything from high-tech accessories to woodblock prints
Gourmet adventures: Try the best Japanese cuisine, from ultra-fresh sushi to simple bowls of ramen
Take a guided tour
Tokyo is a huge, sprawling city that can seem challenging, but that’s the exciting thing about coming here. Nowhere else on Earth has such a dynamic mix of the historic and the ultra-modern, with shrines and skyscrapers sharing an endlessly fascinating cityscape.
One way to start to make sense of it all is to understand that every neighborhood has its own distinct character. Once you know this, you can work out which ones will be best suited to your interests, whether that’s history, dining out, shopping or kid-friendly attractions.
Tours will really help you make the most of your time here. For example, you can hop on any of the dozens of guided tours that happen in and around the Imperial Palace or the historic district of Asakusa for a fascinating primer on Japanese emperors and how Tokyo came to be the country’s capital. You’ll see the shrines and temples that you associate with Japan, and the guides will help ease you into the rhythms of the place.
Art and entertainment
If you are looking for artistic things to do in Tokyo, make your way to the Tokyo National Museum to see the world’s largest collection of Japanese art. You’ll see everything from Buddhist sculptures to samurai swords, elaborate scrolls and gorgeous kimonos. Guides at the Edo-Tokyo Museum can give you a deeper dive into the city’s history. If you’re an anime fan, you’ll be drawn to the Ghibli Museum, where you can lose yourself in the art that these masters of animation have given the world.
Kids of all ages will love the Tokyo Toy Museum, with its massive ball pit, toy workshops and interactive exhibits for different ages. Kids and adults alike will also like spending time at the National Museum of Nature and Science, where you can see life-size animal models, including dinosaurs and a blue whale.
It’s easy to be transfixed by the modernity in Tokyo, but take time away from the neon lights to experience some traditional Japanese art forms, such as Butoh dance troupes and Kodo drummers. Join locals and tourists alike in the audiences at Kabuki-za Theatre in Ginza, the nearby Shinbashi Enbujo Theatre or the National Theatre of Japan in Chiyoda City. Sports fans will enjoy seeing kendo at Nippon Budokan or sumo at Ryogoku Kokugikan.
What to eat in Tokyo
You can easily throw yourself into the city’s culinary scene by pulling up a stool at any noodle bar — you’ll find them everywhere! — and work your way through the ramen, soba and udon options to find your favorite. You’ll also find a wealth of options for sushi, from casual spots to exclusive, high-end restaurants that have taken preparation to a revered art form. Tokyo has more Michelin stars than any other city, so if you’re a foodie, come hungry.
Drinking culture is a real adventure in Tokyo. For a memorable night, head to Golden Gai in Shinjuku — a collection of tiny bars in low-slung buildings, each with its own character. Tokyo loves its theme bars, so if you like cats, detectives, ghosts or almost anything else, you’re in luck. Ginza has a more mainstream nightlife district that’s good for bar hopping, and for a wild night, you can revel in Roppongi’s raucous DJs and dance parties.
Where to shop
There’s almost no experience in the world quite like shopping in Tokyo. If you’re a fan of technology and gadgets, then your head will spin as you explore the digital playground of Akihabara. Ginza is where to go for upmarket, designer brands, or hunt down vintage accessories or woodblock prints in Shimokitazawa. Snap a selfie under the bright lights and huge screens at Shibuya Crossing before splurging on the fun, casual fashions of Shibuya and Harajuku.
Cherry blossoms and Zen gardens
You’ll soon notice that the Japanese have a real appreciation for nature, with entire festivals dedicated to cherry blossoms and different fruits. You can join strolling locals on the grounds of Yoyogi Park, and enjoy the lawns, ponds and the Meiji Shrine. For some serious tranquility, you’ll find Zen gardens attached to many temples, where you can sit and contemplate life while admiring the meticulously-arranged rocks and plants.
Mount Fuji is the city’s most famous natural sight, and you can view its placid, snowy peaks from the outer suburbs of the city. If you take a westbound bullet train, which is a fun activity in itself, you’ll see some of the best unbroken views of the mountains. Making the pilgrimage to the top is a popular activity, and the official climbing season is from early July to mid-September.
One of the joys of experiencing Tokyo is that you can come away with memorable experiences from even the most everyday activities. The taste of slurping noodles, the peace you felt while sitting in a Zen garden, the glare you swear you can still see from those neon signs – Tokyo will stay with you long after you’ve returned home.
Paul Oswell is an award-winning travel writer and has reported from all seven continents for dozens of internationally known publications. He is based in New Orleans and is the author of “The Bucket List North America: 1,000 Adventures Big and Small” and the editor of an online travel magazine.